This week Molly and I travelled to Fayetteville, Arkansas. Molly took part in New Church Leadership Institute, a conference which is part of the Path1 Initiative of the United Methodist Church. I took pictures, researched, wrote a portion of my thesis prospectus, spent time with my brother (a student at the University of Arkansas), got some rest, and made a few new friends. It was an enjoyable week on a number of levels.
After speaking with Molly and other church leaders I’m left with the impression that hope remains for renewal at the level of the local assembly–there are people within the church who believe that they are called to plant churches where people are welcomed, introduced to Jesus, discipled, cared for, and loved. There is also commitment to the goal that new churches would in turn start new churches, which I hope is an indication that a leveling of sorts would occur within congregations, all the saints would be equipped for the work of the ministry, and some persons outside of clergy (without pensions, health care packages, and conference mandated salaries) might be sent out to foster small communities of people desiring to follow Jesus Christ. These people may lead their faith communities while working bi-vocationally and may be without any official office or title.
Such a move might resemble early Methodism, shifting the church into a chaotic mode which may leave many uncomfortable. In my opinion, church renewal and revival will require the presence of chaos, will force rethinking of traditional methodologies, and will by necessity break through bureaucratic red-tape of the established system. While it may be true that great gains can be made through strategic planning and technique, it is my belief that a radical turnaround for established denominations such as Methodism will require a a return to something much more elemental, such as questions of being. The claims which we make about reality, rather than our outward forms, will open more doors for the proclamation of the gospel than close attention to affinity groups, geographic growth regions, and careful marketing campaigns.
Dependence on the Holy Spirit, disciplined cultivation of ministerial character, and passionate care of people–which in my opinion are simple, core commitments–deserve more attention in discussion of new church starts. While the outward form of “what works” is important, the successful establishment of new communities will only yield so much good if what lies at the core of our communities (such as what the gospel says about reality) is left unattended.
My prayers this week have been with those starting new church communities, those whom God may call to start new churches, and those persons who currently do not claim Jesus as Lord whom such new communities may have opportunity to befriend, welcome, and instruct in the Christian way. That is a commitment I have made, for until I become convinced that church leaders are turning focus to the Author and Perfector of our Faith over and above (but not in spite of) technique, strategy, and careful planning, I am not sure what else I can do. I am not sure there is anything better which I can do.
May God raise up persons who would represent Christ well in this generation. May God embolden our witness, calling us to champion justice, testify love, and embrace unpopularity for those things which we may be called to protest or proclaim in accordance with the truth.